Awards Daily talks to Escape at Dannemora creators and writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin about their vision for the brilliant Showtime limited series.
Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora features stunning performances by Patricia Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, and Eric Lange. It boasts career-best direction by actor Ben Stiller. It effectively depicts the infamous 2015 prison escape at New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility through the lens of a gritty 1970s cinematic crime epic. Each of these exceptional components blend together to create a brilliant experience thanks to the overall vision and writing of series creators Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin.
During their partnership on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, Johnson and Tolkin were turned on to the prison escape by a friend. Into the first five days of Richard Matt and David Sweat’s (played in the series by del Toro and Dano, respectively) ultimately 22 day escape, the writing team started envisioning a full treatment for the story. The individual pieces were almost too good to be true. The first escape in the prison’s 170-year existence. The reported assistance of Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a married woman romantically linked to both escapees. Her blissfully (or willfully) ignorant husband, hopelessly smitten. The opportunity to explore their hardened way of life in the upstate New York village of Dannemora.
Described by Johnson as “the last big story before [Donald] Trump was the big story,” the resulting Showtime limited series perfectly captured these unique ingredients, guided by the vision, research and writing prowess of Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin. Talk to any member of the creative team, and they sing the praises of Johnson and Tolkin’s remarkable (and remarkably detailed) script. Here, both writers talk to Awards Daily about their research process, their exploration of the memorable characters, and their partnership with the great Ben Stiller.
What about this story of the 2015 escape at Clinton drew you into it?
Brett Johnson: Michael and I had written two episodes of Ray Donovan together. We were actually on the set of the second one we’d written together, and this story happened. A producer called us, and it was just everything. It was Richard Matt’s art work. It was this woman who seemed to have been having an affair with both men. And every time a new article came out, there was another new and amazing angle on the thing. We had an outline on it before the guys were caught. I think in an early version I think we’d said the best thing that could happen is if they weren’t caught. Then we could make up any ending we want. [Laughs] Obviously, we got a good ending regardless.
What kind of sources did you pull from to craft the overall story?
Michael Tolkin: We went along with what we got out of the news for the first two chapters we wrote. But then a year to the day after the breakout, the inspector general of New York released her report. That became the bible for what we did. We had facts that we were only guessing at, and we had a reality and a schedule and details and access to information and police interrogations of all the principals. That was really where we got our research. The state paid for the research.
The series goes deep to depict small town life, prison life, and the lives of those involved in the story. Do you think that limited series especially lend themselves to such an expansive exploration?
BJ: For me, I think that the limited series – we were really trying to explore who these people really were – I think we barely get to do it in eight hours. There was something in David Sweat’s transcript that stood out like an exclamation point when we read it. At one point as depicted in the show, there was an anonymous letter that said he was having an affair with Tilly. In his transcript, he said, ‘When that happened, I lost everything. I lost my job. I lost my cell.’
It was so shocking to us because, as civilians, we think you have nothing to lose. You’re already in prison. But they have a job. They have a salary. They can get a raise. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s there. That was really illuminating to us because we suddenly realized the stakes there were the same as they are outside. It went a long way to show what the struggles and stakes were for these people. It’s not getting raped and shivved every day. It’s more like ‘Hey, I can’t buy the chips I like.’
As you read about Escape at Dannemora, many viewers attribute the mantel of the “anti-hero” to Matt and Sweat. Is that something you wanted to pursue or avoid when writing the material?
BJ: When we were watching it, a lot of people were rooting for them to get away. As we started writing the scripts, there’s a group of people who were most certainly not rooting for them to get away, and that’s the families of Kevin Tarsia, the Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy that Sweat shot, and the family of William Rickerson, who Matt murdered. Hero or anti-hero, I think we were trying to tell a real story about who these people really were in as three dimensional a way as we were capable of. Depicting the worst nights of these two guys’ lives was crucial in doing that.
MT: One of the reasons that we set the limited series up this way was that we wanted to focus on the day-to-day experience in the prison and then not have to do flashbacks or dialogue explaining what they’d done. We wanted to have them escape and then go straight to their history. We felt that was the best way to set up the manhunt. To show what they were capable of doing. To show how dangerous they were.
The material that you created feels completely different than anything Ben Stiller has ever directed. What was it about Ben that made you think he was the one to bring the story to the screen?
BJ: We needed someone with a sense of humor. We always thought that was something crucial to the material. We were going for a Dog Day Afternoon vibe with a heart to it. The second that we met with Ben, it was just so clear that this was the guy. I think he had been really wanting to go to some darker, more dramatic places himself. This was obviously a different direction for him. When we wrote these scripts, we didn’t think this was even going to get made. Immediately when Ben was hired, it went from something we were screwing around with to we’re all of a sudden standing at the manhole that we’d been writing about for the past year.
MT: Also, we knew that anyone would take his phone call. He could approach any actor and bring them into the project. When we needed to get into the prison, he was able to contact the governor. Everywhere he goes, he builds good will, and that helped bring so much quality to the show.
Escape at Dannemora is available on Showtime.